Starving Artist No More Blog

013: Find Your Why

Jan 24, 2023
Starving Artist No More | Jennifer Jill Araya
013: Find Your Why

Why are you a creative entrepreneur? Why are you an artist? What is the reason driving you to make a living from your art? Being a working artist is a hard life, full of ups and downs and twists and turns. So why do you do it? What is the purpose behind your choice to live the life of a creative? A lot of artists I talk to can’t answer this question right away. They’ve never actually thought about it. Their choice to be an artist was made so long ago and was so instinctive that they can’t articulate any true purpose behind it. But it is worth it to do the internal thought work necessary to determine your own personal purpose for the work that you do. Finding your why as it relates to your art will allow you to weather the ups and downs that inevitably come with the creative life. Finding your why helps you stay focused and motivated over the long-term. Finding your why gives your art purpose. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about your why as it relates to your creative business.


Hello there, thriving artists, and welcome to episode 13 of the Starving Artist No More podcast. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Araya, and I’m so glad you’re here with me today. Before we get to the topic of today’s episode, I have a great free resource that I want to share with you. If you struggle with the “feast or famine” cycle, if you deal with months of almost no income – famine months – followed by months when you’re swimming in income – feast months – and repeating this in an endless cycle, then you are in the throes of the “feast or famine” cycle in your business. The free guide available on my website can help. Simply visit and fill in the contact form to download the free guide, “Say Goodbye to Feast or Famine: Three Financial Must-Haves for Creative Entrepreneurs.” I really think it can help you escape the financial rollercoaster that plagues so many creative businesses. Just go to my website and fill out the form to get the guide sent straight to your inbox.

And with that, let’s get right to the topic of today’s episode: finding your why. Why do you do what you do? Why did you pick the crazy, wonderful life of an artist business owner? What is your purpose with your art? If you want to build a business that holistically fulfills your needs – personally, creatively, and financially – which we’ve talked about on previous episodes, you need to start by figuring out your why. Why are you doing this? Why do you want to build this business? Not, why do you want to build a business, but why do you want to build this business? It’s a small distinction, but it makes a big difference. Why is this business the best of all possible outlets for your creativity? Why is this business something you must do, and why is it vital that you follow this path to pursue your creative goals? When the going gets tough and you face rejection after rejection after rejection, what about this business will give you the drive to keep going? Why is this business worth the precious investment of your time and energy? Why?

Josh Spector, writer of the “For the Interested” newsletter, which is a great newsletter for creative entrepreneurs, recently wrote, “The hard part isn't getting started. It's not pushing through the messy middle. And it's not finishing strong. The hard part is finding something you care enough about to do all those things.” He is so absolutely right! Caring about your work – knowing why it is that you do what you do – can make all the difference. Knowing the purpose behind your creative work can make the difference between starting and not starting, between pushing through the messy middle and giving up halfway, between finishing strong and not finishing at all. Knowing your why is powerful.

Figuring out your why will likely take some time. It’s not an instant process, and it will involve taking a deep look at your motivations and purpose, not something most of us think about on a daily basis. But once you do find your why, it will make all the difference.

“Why?” you might ask. “Why is finding my why so important?” I’ve already alluded to the answer, but put simply, your why matters because it is your source of intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive you feel that pushes you forward in whatever activity you’re pursuing. It’s the little voice inside your head telling you to keep going, to keep trying, to give it another shot. Whether your craft is painting or acting or photography or writing, when you spend hours learning about that craft, simply because you love the topic you’re studying and enjoy the process of learning more about it, you are intrinsically motivated.

The opposite of intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is external, not internal. It comes from others. A little child who is told to “eat your broccoli!” has extrinsic motivation, and probably not very much of it. Extrinsic motivation comes from your teachers, your colleagues, your friends. Peer pressure is extrinsic motivation at its most pure. Society provides extrinsic motivation as well, dictating what types of art are “good” and “popular” at a given time, what forms of creativity have value in the eyes of the public.

We all deal with both types of motivation every day, in everything we do. And when your business is going well and your schedule is full and you are enjoying the projects on your plate, extrinsic motivation can be just as motivating as intrinsic motivation. The external validation that comes when others pay their hard-earned cash in exchange for your creative efforts can be a heady experience! There is nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is a good thing. In fact, it is necessary.

But if your only motivation comes from external factors, your drive to build your business, to continue working to sell your creative efforts, will eventually shrivel up and die. Because no business is sunshine and roses all the time. Every business will go through slow periods at some point in time. Now, I have lots of info in other episodes of this podcast about how to minimize those slow periods, and I also do focused work on how to build a consistent, sustainable income stream, one that smooths out the ups and downs of the “feast or famine” cycle as much as possible, with my one-on-one coaching clients and with my group workshop participants, so you don’t have to just accept the extreme highs and lows of the “feast or famine” cycle in your business. You can get off the “feast or famine” rat race.

But even if you do everything imaginable to get out of that “feast or famine” cycle, slow periods will come. You can count on it. They maybe won’t be so slow as to qualify as “famine” anymore – the steep valleys and peaks will be smoothed out into gentle humps and shallow valleys – but slow periods in one form or another will still come. And when they come, what will keep you going? What will give you the energy to wake up and keep working on your business? Intrinsic motivation. Only if you are internally driven to do this work, and only if you know why it is that this work is important and matters to you, will you find the grit to keep going when the going gets tough.

For creative entrepreneurs, intrinsic motivation is the difference between a business that grows and thrives over the long term, and a business that dies at the first sign of trouble. And because, as a creative entrepreneur, you are your business, because your creative energy and effort is the product you are selling, knowing your intrinsic motivation as it relates to your business, knowing your why, is the first and most important step in building a business that meets your needs.

My background is in classical music. I started studying music at the ripe old age of five, and while I didn’t always enjoy the hours of practicing and rehearsing, I did always love it. (And performing? Let me tell you – the BEST FEELING IN THE WORLD!) As a young music student, my why, my intrinsic motivation, came from love of the craft and a deep desire to be the best possible musician I could be. This why powered me through years of daily practice sessions and weekly lessons.

When I eventually became a conservatory student, where I studied both cello and voice, my “why” came from a desire to one day make a living as a professional musician. I loved – in fact, still love – the thrill that comes from the cooperation of hundreds of musicians on stage at the same time in an orchestra or in an opera, working together toward the common goal of creating a meaningful performance that has a lasting impact on those in the audience.

During my years of music study, an oft-repeated aphorism was, “Only study music at this level if you can’t ever imagine yourself doing anything else.” At that point, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, and so I put everything I had into the single-minded pursuit of musical excellence. This intrinsic motivation pushed me through six years of conservatory training, after which I graduated with my master's degree in music performance and began the arduous process of pursuing a full-time orchestral cello position.

And there it faltered. I had intrinsic motivation. I had a craft, an art, that I loved with a true passion. But I had never articulated for myself the specific why of this specific pursuit. Why was an orchestral cello position the best of all possible uses for my creative energy? Why was this what I had to do? I had intrinsic motivation, but I didn’t consciously know I had it, and I had no clue where it came from, no idea why I had it. And so when the going got truly tough, when I was traveling all over the country – at times all over the world – taking orchestral auditions over and over and over again and never winning the spot, when I needed to somehow get in hours of focused, productive practice every day in addition to holding down a desk job in an office so that I could pay the bills, when I faced rejection after rejection after rejection, my love for the craft wasn’t enough. It wasn’t a big enough why. I needed to know why this particular creative outlet was the best and most important venue for my time and energy, and I didn’t. I eventually stopped taking orchestral auditions and made the decision to pursue other venues for my creative work.

Now, to be clear, I don’t regret this decision. For me and for my family, deciding to pivot when I did was the right decision. Ultimately, orchestral cello playing was not the best of all possible outlets for my creative energy. I am grateful for the adventures and experiences I had on my circuitous route to building an artistic business that truly meets my needs. I learned a lot through the process of taking orchestral auditions, and I truly don’t think I’d be as good of an audiobook narrator today had I not gone through those difficult times. I know I wouldn’t be a good audiobook narrator at all without the skills and techniques I learned in my musical training. Although I never conceived of it at the time, my work as an audiobook narrator now is directly a result of the musical training I received, and so I regret nothing about that training. But I also believe that, had I been able to articulate a clear and concise “why” for myself in terms of my pursuit of a full-time orchestral cello position, I would have had the intrinsic motivation to keep going when instead I decided to pivot to something else.

You cannot truly push yourself, you cannot grow and innovate and learn, unless you know why you are doing it. Figuring out how your business can serve you is not possible until you know why it’s the right choice for you, until you have answered for yourself what you want from your business, from your artistic life, and from your creative self. Unless you have a goal that lights you up inside, that gives you an internal drive to keep working and keep improving and keep doing – unless you have intrinsic motivation, a “why” – your business will not reach its full potential.

Finding that why is not a one-time process. I don’t know if you noticed it when I was telling you the story of my musical studies, but my why for my music work changed over time. As a young music student, my why was related to my love of the craft and my desire to be the best musician I could be. As a conservatory student, my why had a lot more to do with wanting a specific kind of job after I graduated. My why changed over time. And that’s ok. It will change over time for you, too. The process of evaluating why your business matters to you is an ongoing thing that will change and shift as you grow and evolve as person and as an artist.

Finding your why is also not a simple process. It involves deep internal examination of the sort that most of us don’t do very often or very well. But it is worth it. Because the value you will reap when you know exactly why this business matters to you, the intrinsic motivation that will result, will mean the difference between throwing in the towel and persevering until you thrive.

So how do you find your why? Ah, the million dollar question. This is not an exact science, and there are as many different methods for getting there as there are people on this planet. That said, I have some exercises and questions for you that should get you started, all of which will hopefully get you thinking about why it is that you are doing this work, questions that will help you find your purpose as it relates to your art.

There isn’t one right answer on this introspective journey; it’s an on-going process. But in terms of the goal I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, that of creating a business that fulfills you personally, creatively, and financially, figuring out a few of your most basic “why’s” is enough to get you headed in the right direction.

So let’s dive into the process. Let’s find your why. I’m going to talk you through some exercises and self-reflection questions you can use to find your unique why. When I’m working with my one-on-one coaching clients, or when I’m discussing the process of finding your why in my group workshops, I always like to start with either a Values Ladder or a Values Map.

Let’s talk about a Values Ladder first. Think about the rungs of a ladder that has somewhere between 5 and 8 rungs. On the bottom rung of the ladder is a single-word value that answers this question for you: My business is important to me because (blank). Don’t think about it too much. Just let it be the first thing that pops into your head, as long as it’s a single word. My business is important to me because … What word fills in that blank for you?

If I were to answer this for myself, my bottom rung word would be creative. My work as an audiobook narrator allows me to be creative. There are a lot of different things I could be doing with my life, but the creativity that my work gives me is paramount. That’s my answer to this question. What is your answer?  My business is important to me because …

When you have an answer for that starting question, take your answer, your starting “value,” and put it into question form. What is important about (your bottom rung value) to you? And again, your first-instinct answer is great. You don’t want to think too much about the answers in this exercise. This is to help you begin thinking about your values as they relate to your business and to get in the right frame of mind for figuring out your why. Your answer to this question isn’t meant to be the final answer. Your top of mind answer is fine.

So for me, I would ask myself, “What is important about creativity to me?” And my answer would be this: Creativity is important to me because it lets me be flexible: in my work, in my activities from day to day, in how I interact with the world and with people around me. That’s why creativity matters to me. Answer that for yourself: “What is important about (this value) to me?”

And then you keep going, taking each single-word value and making it into a question, “What is important about (your value) to you?” Repeat this process until you have a list of 5-8 values, one on each rung of your ladder, that all describe why your work as an artist matters to you.

That is the Values Ladder method of identifying your values, and it can be super helpful for getting you to think deeply very quickly, since with every value you come up with, you are immediately defining why that value is important to you, digging deeper into your motivations with every rung of the ladder. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion to get at the core reasons why your business matters to you.

That said, for some people, the linear nature of the Values Ladder feels too restrictive. Sometimes there are three values that all explain why one aspect of your business is important. What do you do then? Do you have to narrow it down to just one value at a time on each rung of the ladder?

Not at all! It’s completely ok to feel like the “one value at a time” nature of the Values Ladder doesn’t work for you. What you can do then is make a Values Map instead of a Values Ladder. You might have seen an idea map, or they’re sometimes called a brain map, before. This type of chart has one big circle with an idea or concept in the middle, with lots of other circles branching off of it, each circle containing something related to the idea or concept in the middle circle, and more circles branching off those smaller circles.

With a Values Map, you’d put “my business” in that central circle and then ask yourself the same question we asked for the Values Ladder – “What is important about my business to me?” – and then write the values that come to mind in separate circles branching off of the central circle. And then ask yourself those same follow-up questions – “What is important about this value to me?” – and put your answers into their own little circles branching off even further.

The goal of both of these exercises is to help you determine what about your business is meaningful to you, what makes your business a good fit for your unique lifestyle and your unique creative energy. These values get you started in the process of identifying your why.

Once you’ve outline for yourself the values that are important to you within your creative business, let’s next think about some broader questions that will hopefully help you drill down even further. The first question to think about is this: What, for me, are the three most important things about my business?

This can be anything – don’t limit yourself! Three of the most important things for me about my current business, audiobook narration, are:

  1. Flexibility – specifically, flexibility and control of my schedule,
  2. Sharing – the ability to share my creativity with others through storytelling, and
  3. Serving – the opportunity to use my work to serve the needs of others, including my listeners, the story and the characters within it, and the authors whose stories I narrate.

Those are the three most important things to me about my work as an audiobook narrator. They truly matter to me, and if my audiobook narration business didn’t provide those three things to me, my business would no longer be meeting my needs. They are that important.

But my three most important items are not your three most important items. Give yourself some time to think and ponder. Notice that one of my three items, flexibility, is the same as one of the values I identified for my Values Ladder. The values you spotlighted in your Values Ladder or Values Map are a great place to look for ideas when you’re thinking about your top-three things that makes your business meaningful to you. That’s why we did the Values Ladder / Map exercise before we started answering this question. However, if the values you identified don’t quite answer this question for you or just don’t feel like the right fit, perhaps write down a “brain dump” style list of 20 things that you value about your business, and then narrow it down to just three. But take the time to narrow your list down to the three things that you most value, that matter the most to you, about your creative business. What are the three most important things that, if your business didn’t provide them to you, would make this business no longer the right fit for you?

Next, ask yourself, Using my three answers from question one, why are these three things important to me?

Finding your big why is sometimes as simple as finding your little why’s and understanding the common threads between them. So in this question, look at the why’s regarding those three important elements of your business that you came up with in question one. For each of those three things, examine your reasons for choosing them. What about them makes them important to you? Why do they matter? Why did they make it into your top three? Why are they so important to you that, if your business didn’t provide them to you, your business would no longer be a good fit for you?

I’ll again use myself as an example to give you an idea of what I mean. I just said that one of the three most important things about my business to me is that it allows me to share my creativity with others, that it provides me a creative outlet through storytelling. And I already told you about my experience as a music student who dreamed of one day making my living through music and becoming a full-time musician. Obviously, today, I don’t make my living primarily through music. My primary income today comes from my work as an audiobook narrator. Although I am an active freelance musician and still do a lot of performing musically, that is not where I spend most of my time or earn most of my money. But my work as an audiobook narrator scratches that same creative “itch” that I once dreamed I would fulfill by performing as a full-time musician. The things that I love about performing music all translate directly into my audiobook narration work. Orchestral cello playing and operatic singing are both focused on communicating stories, emotions, and ideas through sound. I am still doing that work as an audiobook narrator, only now my medium is spoken word rather than music.

If working as an audiobook narrator didn’t fulfill me creatively in this way, my business would not be the right fit for me. So in short, why is it important to me that my business allows me to share my creativity through storytelling? Because this allows my business to satisfy my creative need to communicate stories, emotions, and ideas through sound. My business allows me to share with others my creativity and my love for story.

Go through this thought process yourself through each of the three important elements you identified about your business. Why do they matter to you?

And the final question to consider is this: When have I felt most fulfilled personally in my business, and why? Creatively? Financially?

Think back over the time you have been running your business, however long that has been, and answer separately for each of the three categories. When did you feel most fulfilled personally in your business, and why? When did you feel most fulfilled creatively in your business, and why? When did you feel most fulfilled financially in your business, and why?

Let me again share one of my answers. Before I began working as an audiobook narrator, I had a business as a private music teacher and freelance musician, which was one of my previous creative businesses. My music teaching duties required me to work when my students, mostly elementary and middle school students, were available, which was after school and on the weekends. This unfortunately lined up perfectly with when my daughter was out of school and wanted my attention and my time, or when my daughter had extracurricular activities that she wanted me to attend or to which she needed transportation. Balancing my duties as a parent and my job as a music teacher was a constant struggle and a source of stress.

When I began working as an audiobook narrator, my daughter was in high school. The first time I didn’t have to make the choice between either missing one of my daughter’s events, or going through the arduous process of rescheduling a student’s music lesson (or, more likely, losing the income from that lesson in the very likely scenario that the student was unable to reschedule), I felt an incredible feeling of peace and gratitude. For the first time in my life, my work time was my own. I could make the decision to customize my work schedule to allow me to be present when my daughter needed me. That moment in time (and every similar moment thereafter) is when I have felt most personally fulfilled in my business. Why? Because my business gives me the flexibility I need to be the kind of parent I want to be.

Answer all three of these questions for yourself. When have you felt most fulfilled by your business in the three areas we’re looking at? What about those moments caused them to be fulfilling for you?

As a quick aside, you may notice that my moment of personal fulfillment relates directly to one of the three most important things I identified for myself in question 1, that my business gives me flexibility and control of my schedule. If your fulfilling moments line up with your three most important things, that’s great! If not, that’s also completely fine. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to discover your why. Follow your introspective path wherever it will lead you. This is a personal journey, not a formulaic one.

I suggest you spend some time thinking about these questions for yourself. Journal about them, if that’s something that would be helpful to you. Discuss them with your friends or with your partner, if an interactive process is more your style. You could even find images that represent these things to you and create a vision board, which one actor I work with did recently. In whatever way works best for you, answer these questions for yourself:

  • What are the three most important things about my business?
  • Why are these three things important to me?
  • When have I felt most fulfilled in my business, and why: personally? creatively? financially?

Once you answer those three questions and add those answers to the values you identified for yourself earlier, you have a wealth of information about why your business matters to you. All that remains is to take the big picture view. Read through your values from either the Values Ladder or the Values Map. Read back through your answers to the three questions. Take a step back and think: what do all of these things have in common? What are the concepts, values, and themes that rise to the top? What shows up over and over again? Whatever common thread or threads you find, put that into a single statement that can answer the question, “What is your purpose regarding your business?”

If you can articulate your why, if you can say with confidence why your business matters to you, then you have a guideline for what your business needs to be and do in order to meet your needs. You also have a strong, articulated reason for putting time and effort into your business so that it will continue to meet your needs going forward. You have intrinsic motivation.

My why has changed over time, as I’m sure yours will too, but for me right now (and for the last few years), my why is sharing and serving. Everything I do in my business, both as an audiobook narrator and as a business coach, is all about sharing myself and my experiences and my creativity with others, and serving those around me in ways that bring true benefit to them and improve or enhance their lives in some way. These two values, sharing and serving, drive all of my business decisions. Before I make any big decision (and most of the time before I make even medium-sized decisions) in my business, I ask myself: will this action that I’m contemplating allow me to share more completely and serve more effectively? And the answer to that question tells me whether or not this business opportunity is one I should pursue or one I should pass on.

Once you have identified your why, once you know what is important to you about your work as an artist, you can use that why to test everything that you consider doing in your business. If collaboration with other artists is part of your why, then accepting a solo project that will have you working alone for the next six months is not a good idea. If freedom of creativity matters to you, then you should seek out projects that allow you the maximum amount of responsibility to make creative decisions about the direction of the project. If flexibility of schedule matters to you, then you shouldn’t take on a project that requires you to be at a job site for a set number of hours at a set time each work day.

A flexible schedule isn’t one of the things that is explicitly mentioned in my why statement, but it is one of my top-three most important reasons my business matters to me. When I feel constrained by my schedule, when my work calendar is out of my control, then I’m not able to serve others completely because I’m worried about my schedule, meaning those two elements of my business are linked. Flexibility of schedule provides me the peace of mind that I need to share with openness. So, since flexibility matters to me, accepting a project like that with a set, rigid daily schedule, even if it’s a project that otherwise would be a great fit, works directly against the elements I value in my business.

You can use your why like a North Star, like a guiding light. These elements of your business are the ones that you have determined matter the most to you, and so you can use them to make decisions about what avenues you should pursue. When I’m coaching a creative entrepreneur about business strategy and goal-setting, developing a strategic plan for that artist’s unique business, we always start by first identifying their unique why as it relates to their business. Only once you know why you’re doing something can you determine what steps are the right ones to take. Knowing your why brings clarity and focus. Knowing your why shows you the way forward for you and your business.

Thank you so much for your time today. I’m so glad you were here with me for this episode of the Starving Artist No More podcast. If you take action on finding your why, if you go through the introspective exercises I outlined in this episode, please reach out and let me know what your why is! What values did you identify in your Values Ladder or Values Map? Did you learn anything surprising about yourself as you answered the three questions? What why statement did you settle on? I’d love to hear about your experience finding your why.

As always, I would deeply appreciate any ratings, reviews, and subscriptions you feel led to leave for me, and if you know any other creative entrepreneurs who might be helped by today’s episode, or any episode of this podcast, please pass it along. Sharing is caring! If you have any questions or if you’d like to learn more about my coaching and workshop programs, please feel free to reach out to me through my website, Thanks again for spending this time with me. I hope this helped you clarify for yourself why your business matters so that you can move forward and create more freely. I can’t wait to see what you create.


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